Education key to future life expectancy gains, wealth creation

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Ageing May15

Around 1 in 3 of all babies born this year in the rich countries of the world are likely to live to be 100 years old.  Its an astonishing change, when one remembers that life expectancy was just 34 years in the West only 200 years ago.

UK data provides major insight into the opportunity that lies ahead:

  • There were just 600 people aged 100 or more in the UK in 1961
  • Today, only 55 years later, there are around 14000 centenarians
  • Within 25 years, official projections suggest there could be at least 77k – and there could be 156k
  • And, of course, women live longer than men, so female prospects are even better

The key to this fantastic development is education.  As I noted last week, the great advantage of living longer is that one has a chance to gain experience, and then to pass it on to younger people.  This is even more important today, as the real driver for increased life expectancy in the West will be lifestyle changes.

People in the emerging economies still have some catching up to do with respect to the easy availability of vaccines, disinfection and drugs.  These are taken for granted in the developed world.  But 2.5bn people still lack access to a toilet in the emerging world, and 750m lack access to safe water.  The same problems arise with the availability of vaccines and pharma products.

But in the West, continuing increases in life expectancy will now all be focused on education, as The Atlantic magazine has reported: 

The single best yardstick for measuring a person’s likely life span is education. John Rowe, a health-policy professor at Columbia University and a former CEO of Aetna, says, “If someone walked into my office and asked me to predict how long he would live, I would ask two things: What is your age, and how many years of education did you receive?”

“Jay Olshansky’s latest research suggests that American women with no high-school diploma have experienced relatively small life-span increases since the 1950s, while the life expectancy of highly educated women has soared since then. Today the best-educated Americans live 10 to 14 years longer than the least educated, on average. “Nothing pops out of the data like the link between education and life expectancy,” Olshansky says. “The good news is that the share of the American population that is less educated is in gradual decline. The bad news is that lack of education seems even more lethal than it was in the past.”

“Education does not sync with life expectancy because reading Dostoyevsky lowers blood pressure; college is a proxy for other aspects of a person’s life. Compared with the less educated, people with a bachelor’s degree have a higher income, smoke less, are less likely to be overweight, and are more likely to follow doctors’ instructions. College graduates are more likely to marry and stay married, and marriage is good for your health: the wedded suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes than the single or divorced.

Many of the social developments that improve longevity—better sanitation, less pollution, improved emergency rooms—are provided to all on an egalitarian basis. But today’s public high schools are dreadful in many inner-city areas, and broadly across states including California. Legislatures are cutting support for public universities, while the cost of higher education rises faster than inflation. These issues are discussed in terms of fairness; perhaps health should be added as a concern in the debate. If education is the trump card of longevity, the top quintile may pull away from the rest”.

Existing research also highlights how today’s centenarians tend to benefit from living in places where the incidence of chronic diseases is reduced by 5 key factors – mental health, family support, healthy diet, reasonable exercise and genetic inheritance.

Scientists can even study this in action, in what are termed “blue zones” around the world—places where people live the longest with the lowest rates of chronic disease.  One, in Sardinia, is pictured above.  And as the Wall Street Journal has reported, people get to live longer in these “blue zones”  because “they lived in cultures that made the right decisions for them“.

In turn, of course, these factors create the opportunities of the future for companies and investors.  Companies therefore need to begin realigning their business models with the key demographic drivers eg the ageing BabyBoomers in the West, and greater domestic consumption in emerging economies.

If you want to make money in emerging countries, focus on providing basic needs such as toilets and affordable vaccines.  If you want to make money in the developed world, harness the expertise of your ageing workforce to develop the service-led package that will be needed.

Profitable growth will come from providing sustainable solutions that meet real needs (not just “wants”) in these new markets of the future.
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